Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Half Minute Hero: Super Mega Neo Climax Ultimate Boy - 10/20 hours

When I last left off, I had a choice between two paths - continue on my way past the flood gates or work for the rich man who let me use his private beach. Because the latter sounds more novel, that's the one I chose (although, after I beat the game, I went back and finished the other path, and it turned out I should have done both, because each one was only like two levels long).

The next level, called "The Have Nots" was one of the more interesting levels of the game. The Evil Lord is guy named Gordon who wants to make a world where money is everything. To get to him, I needed to save up 1000g, but none of the monsters had money, and thus I had to do jobs for the townspeople to get through. Of course, the jobs you do are just running into caves and killing monsters (or rocks), so it's not too different, but it had a different feel from a standard mission.

It was a little rough, because the jobs didn't pay very well and took awhile to do, but the Goddess did not give me any discount on turning back time. The obvious parallel between the Goddess and Gordon did not go unnoted.

Another odd level had no monsters, and you had to upgrade your character by fighting a sage turtle. It was pretty bizarre.

I think my favorite series of levels were the ones where you befriend Syldonix, the dragon, and he lets you fly around on his back. These were a bit faster paced, and had graphics reminiscent of the SNES's mode 7. A nice bit of nostalgia, there.

The second to last level was "Farwell Bandit Trio." It is a typical jrpg convention that you have a recurring squad of minor, comic relief villains who turn out to be not nearly so nasty as the main boss, but I'm not sure the Bandit Trio has the charisma to pull it off. The level itself gave me a bit of trouble, due to invisible wind currents, but it didn't take too long to get through (one advantage of this game is that even the tough levels take no more than 3-4 minutes).

Anyway, the final level was a huge island where you have to zip around reuniting with the various npcs you helped over the course of the game. Noire has revived the Overlord (something he can apparently do only once every hundred years), and you need all your power to take him out.

When you destroy him, he hits you with the biggest, most spurious bit of false equivalence I'd ever heard, "you destroy evil lords so evil lords won't destroy you." Yes, the Overlord is such an idiot that he thinks that makes the hero and the evil lords exactly the same. No one will miss him.

Except, perhaps, Noire, who escapes. The hero and the Goddess spend the next few years chasing him down, and at the end of his adventures, he pays the Goddess his remaining gold to freeze him in time, so that he may revive when Noire next threatens the world.

After that, I went back and found a second ending. By taking a hidden exit to a previous level, I found a gem of evil. This gem released the Overlord early. He then proceeded to turn all my friends to stone and dispatch me with a single hit. Then, the game crashed.

This happened the next couple of times I tried the level. It turns out that there's a glitch in the game that can only be worked around by switching the game into retro mode. Retro mode isn't bad, per se, but I think it might have gone too far in making the characters into pixelated sprites. I used to play a lot of 16-bit rpgs, and most of them looked better than Half Minute Hero's retro mode (I think they tried to make it clear that they were doing old-school art without acknowledging that old-school games were capable of relatively smooth and attractive sprites)..

The alternate ending requires you to get the aid of the five time beasts. Each of the beasts had a unique gimmick, and their levels were pretty fun. The first one blew me around with random storms, the second one did not allow time resets. The third created a double of the hero who ruined my reputation. The fourth stopped time. And the fifth revived some bosses for a short boss rush (it was a pretty random selection, and none of them were really memorable enough to be worth writing down).

Next up is Evil Lord 30, which promises to be interesting. It'll be nice to see a new twist on the Half Minute Hero formula.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Half Minute Hero: Super Mega Neo Climax Ultimate Boy - 6/20 hours

Recapping this game is difficult. There are a lot of details, but little incident. Really, the experience of playing Half Minute Hero is of a pattern - start a level, get introduced to a quirky villain, listen to the Goddess of Time make a joke or describe an obstacle, poke around a village to find a solution, go to some cave to execute the solution, fight the boss, listen to wrap-up, earn an item.

Most of the levels are pretty forgettable. The best ones are probably those with a branching path. There is one level where the boss was unusually powerful, and I had to choose between aiding a nun to gain holy power or making a deal with a demon. This opened up two different paths that went on for about four levels before they reconverged.

If you chose the demon, you got get a variation in the normal gameplay experience. The demon makes you extremely powerful, so much so that you are never in any real danger of dying, but at the end of each level the Goddess of Time swoops in and steals your treasure. Eventually, you have to pay her 1 million gold to lift the curse (the demon threatens to claim your soul after you use its power four times). It's not a super-innovative twist on the formula, but it's nice as a change of pace.

By contrast, the nun's path was fairly standard, though it ended on a relatively unique level where you had to chase down some bandits (a rather sad group of recurring characters called the "Bandit Trio") to recover a holy grail and then use that grail on Nexus, the Undead Queen. If you beat Nexus without using the grail, the ending part of the pattern triggered as normal, but then she popped up, alive, and you're taken to the main menu instead of the world map.

Half Minute Hero is probably at its best when it does unexpected stuff like that. My favorite non-standard game over was probably in the level with the pirate's treasure, where the Goddess of Time asks you whether finding the treasure means you plan on giving up adventuring to live a life of wealth. If you answer yes, you get a screen of the Hero and Goddess frolicking in a big pile of coins before you're taken back to the main menu. It's a neat little moment, and a nice reward for traveling off the beaten path and then trying something stupid.

I wouldn't call it a complaint, since the fault is almost certainly with my particular style of play, but I do kind of find the game's side paths to be distracting. Whenever I open one up, I'm faced with a dilemma of what to do next. What's the best way of seeing everything? Do I stick with one path or alternate between two? At first, I alternated, but I don't think I like that way of playing. At one point, I was on four different paths at once, and it was a little hard to remember what was going on. If the plot of the game was anything other than paper thin, it might have been a genuine problem.

When I quit most recently, I'd just unlocked a new branching path. Shortly after defeating the Black Knight Zane (along with a guest reappearance of Evilo, the villain with perhaps the best name in the game) and discovering that Noire (the dickhead who is teaching every damned idiot with a half-baked grudge how to cast the Spell of Destruction, and who is apparently trying to revive the dark counterpart to the Goddess of Time) has fled to another continent, I was faced with a path blocked by a broken floodgate. If I tracked down the missing gate part (stolen by the "Bandit Trio," fresh off stealing the holy grail that kept an ancient undead sealed in slumber and apparently looking for a new pointless crime to commit), I could go north. If I swam across the lake by getting a rich guy's permission to take off from his private beach, I would then have to go east to "work off my debt."

I think, this time, I will follow one path to its end and then come back later. This will make the story a bit more coherent (in as much as its bite-sized structure can be, at least), though I'm a little worried that I won't know when it will be okay to turn back and pursue the other path.

Regardless, I think I'll have plenty to keep me occupied for another fourteen hours. In addition to multiple paths, there are hidden items yet to find and at least three more game modes (hero 300, classic evil lord 30, and classic princess 30). I'm especially looking forward to controlling a different character. I'm hoping that being an evil lord or a princess will shake up the game's formula (hero 300 sounds like a total grind, though - I'll skip it if I have the option).

Overall, I'm feeling pretty positive. Half Minute Hero was 50 cents well spent.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Half Minute Hero: Super Mega Neo Climax Ultimate Boy - 2/20 hours

First things first. I can tell already that I'm going to hate typing that title.  Obviously, its baroque excess is a significant portion of its charm, but damn. It's cute, but it kind of feels like it's trying too hard.

Which is probably equally as true of the game itself. Although, at this early stage, that seems like an overly harsh assessment. In any self-aware genre parody, there is a fine line between winking at various standard conventions and shortcuts as part of a fourth-wall joke and simply using lazy devices and relying on being "meta" to gloss over the story's shortcomings.

So far, Half Minute Hero has fallen on the "cute and funny" side of the line. Why must you pay for the help of the Goddess of Time when you are, in fact, questing to save the world? Because "time is money." Why are so many people so hell-bent on casting a spell that will destroy the world? Lord Hadears is just playing around. Ladybeach got bad information and thinks the spell will do something good. Masnake thinks snakes are cute and resents the way people treat them (and also, apparently does not quite grasp the scope of "destroying the world"). Madwood is just a pissed off tree. Evilo should require no explanation.

Those guys are all pretty fun. On the other hand, after beating Sandora, the game comes right out and tells me that the makers of Half Minute Hero are running out of ideas, and that worries me. That's the sort of joke you can only tell once. If they are, in fact, running out of ideas, I'd rather not know about it. If they aren't, I'd rather they stick to skewering rpg cliches.

Because Half Minute Hero is a pretty effective parody of the rpgs I grew up playing. Basically,  it takes the genre and strips away as much of the embellishment and cruft as possible, leaving only the broad strokes of the classic formula. Some asshole is going to cast a spell that will destroy the world. You show up just as they start. Since the spell takes exactly 30 seconds to cast, you have that long to fight monsters, grind up levels, shop for items, and face the boss. The Goddess of Time helps you out by stopping the clock while you're in towns and resetting the clock for an escalating fee.

It's actually quite repetitive, but because the levels are short, and the action and exploration are fun, it's not that big a deal. I think, however, that the game might have suffered a bit for its transition in mediums. It was originally a hand-held game, and its mechanics are perfect for a platform you may only be able to play for a few minutes at a time. Sitting down in front of a PC and playing it like an epic rpg might put stresses on Half Minute Hero that it may never have been intended to handle.

Still, it hasn't been a problem yet. So far I'm finding it a sprightly and refreshing experience. A nice palate cleanser after Bad Rats, and an amusing reminder of a much-loved genre of games that I haven't really played in years.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Half Minute Hero: Super Mega Neo Climax Ultimate Boy - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

The world is at an end, and you have 30 seconds to save it!

(30… 29… 28…) Start your quest, meet people that need help, fight through dark dungeons, earn money, upgrade your gear and level up, level up, level up until you triumph over evil and take down the final boss! 

(30… 29… 28…) The critically acclaimed Hypersonic RPG action game makes its debut on PC, leveled-up and enhanced to be the ultimate version. The most complete Half Minute Hero yet, it contains all the content and the features (21… 20… 19…) from the previous versions on handheld and console platforms, such as “Hero 300” - the challenging 300 second final chapter, (11… 10… 9…) as well as the exciting Knight 30, Hero 30, and Evil Lord 30 bonus game modes, restored to their full glory... 

(30… 29… 28…) Let’s try that again – Over 60 RPGs in one game, each with its own leaderboard for you to compete with your friends and full Steamworks integration. 8-bit retro graphics are available for when you are feeling nostalgic. (19… 18… 17…). With only 30 seconds to complete each mission (9… 8… 7…), it has proven to be incredibly addictive and loads of fun! 

All the features. All the game modes. Let the 30 second games begin…

Previous Play Time

107 minutes

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

It's a little fuzzy, because it was part of an irresponsible shopping binge (it's not my fault, the Steam Summer Sale was right before my birthday), but I'm pretty sure my line of thought was "oh, that has an amusing title, and it's only fifty cents, it couldn't hurt adding it to my cart." I was also kind of curious about the whole "save the world in thirty seconds" thing. It did not make a lick of sense to me.

Prior Experience

I've already played it a bit. I found it to be a charming bit of fluff, and I really appreciated the way it did not require an immense time commitment. I've not, however, saved the world 200 times, and I suspect that I'm much closer to the beginning of the game than the end. I also did not get the chance to explore any of the alternate game modes, but if I recall, they generally looked pretty funny.


It's kind of a shame that I'm going into this pre-spoiled on the concept, because there were a lot of sharp jokes at the beginning of the game that would have been nice to blog about with fresh eyes. That said, I never got to the end of the game, so I'm looking forward to chuckling at various wacky characters and unexpected plot twists. I'm also curious if there is any great evolution in gameplay at higher levels. It all looked pretty simple to me, but it could be that I never got past the newbie levels.

However, my previous experience with Half Minute Hero leads me to believe that even if there's no great revelation in the back half, it will probably still be light and airy enough for these 20 hours to fly by.

Bad Rats - 20/20 hours


No, I shouldn't say that. For one thing, that sort of hubris invites a downfall. For another, Bad Rats wasn't that bad.

The worst part of the game was the inconsistency of the physics engine, but most of the time, it worked adequately. I spent a significant portion of the last 10 hours replaying the game and running the original solutions to see how well they worked. In twenty-eight out of the forty-four levels, the original solution worked the first time, and in ten out of the fourty-four levels, I had to run the original solution between 2 and 5 times (it also turns out that a couple of the ones wound up coming up in this category on my third playthrough, which makes me suspect that it's probably closer to a 20-20 split). Only in six cases did the original solution require six or more reloads.

However, of those six, one required 11 tries, one 13, one 15, and one 25. So, most of the time, the simulation was fairly reliable, but when it was unreliable, it was really unreliable. I suppose, in a way, that might even be worse than being completely broken. If it were completely broken, you'd probably realize right away. As it is, there are at least four bombs hidden in the middle of the game. The game is functional before these levels and functional afterwards, but these levels would stop you dead.

"Fortunately" I was playing for time, rather than for any particular goal. The key to many levels was simply repeating them more times than any reasonable person would bother.  What that says about my own level of reasonableness, I'd rather not speculate.

In the final analysis, my feelings about this game are . . . meh. I don't hate it, but I don't have anything especially positive to say about it either. I kind of like the core idea - arranging objects to solve physics puzzles - but the execution is incredibly shoddy. However, my spirits are currently high. I feel like I have crested a hill. All of my remaining games are ones that I'm actually interested in playing. I didn't technically need to play Bad Rats for 20 hours (even aside from the self-imposed nature of my challenge, I had permission to gloss over this game), but having done so, I feel like I've accomplished something.

Something pointless and silly, granted, but nonetheless I accomplished a goal, and that feels good. So, I will probably always remember Bad Rats with fondness, even if it really doesn't deserve it.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Bad Rats - 10/20 hours

The thing I've noticed about "bad" games is that, whatever the potential strength or weakness of their core concept, they also tend to get the small, peripheral details wrong.  For example, the volume control in Bad Rats' audio settings does not work correctly. If you mute the volume so that you might listen to a podcast or music while you're playing, the change does not take place until you finish a level. This is true even if you change the settings from the main menu.

That seems sloppy to me, but honestly I'm in no position to criticize. I'd never given much thought to menu options (mainly because, in the past, they'd simply worked). I have no idea what goes into making a volume control functional. I guess my assumption would have been (had it occurred to me to question it) that volume control was handled automatically by Windows, and the menu was merely a convenient intermediary. Obviously that is not the case.

That a game could have such a flaw, and that I could go so long without realizing it was possible is enough to take my breath away. When I stop to think about it, I realize that I have no idea how one would even go about programming a menu in the first place. I took a programming class in college, and never came close to learning how to do something like that (though, if I'd been assigned it as an exercise, I have a feeling that my notional audio settings menu may well have had a similar flaw to the one in Bad Rats - the delay in implementing sound changes feels to me like a shortcut, where you only check the settings while loading a new level to avoid a variety of annoying bugs).

The complexity of modern computers is staggering, and the intricacies of programming for them are difficult for the layman to imagine. It is a miracle of capitalism that we wind up using that power for something as silly as games. That Bad Rats even exists would be impossible to explain to, say, Julius Ceaser. I feel like I should temper my criticism with a degree of humility.

On the other hand, I don't understand clockwork, either, and yet that would not stop me from complaining about a watch that failed to keep proper time. And, for all that making a game like Bad Rats is beyond my personal powers, I can't help but notice that while Skyrim also had the occasional physics glitch, it nonetheless managed to get its menus right.

But that's just me being snarky. I actually finished map 45 at around the eight hour mark, and having completed the whole game, I'm inclined to be generous. It's kind of inexplicable that, time and again, the "solution" to beating a level was to repeatedly retry the exact same setup until the physics engine happened to fire in exactly the right way, but there was a certain amount of fun to be had in setting up these rat-based Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions, and once I learned that missing with the ball did not necessarily mean that I "failed" the level, it was not particularly onerous to reload the map a few times. That said, it was damned sloppy design, and I'd say that the eight hours I spent beating the game probably contained about four hours of gameplay.

Maybe that's why the game is the way it is. Maybe the inconsistency of the physics is a way to stretch out the game, and make it seem bigger than it is. Yet, if so, it's a baffling decision - what's the point of giving people more, if the extra portion makes their experience worse (he said, having gone to many, many all you can eat buffets)?

I think it's probably irresponsible to speculate. I should just accept Bad Rats as an experience and not attempt to tie it to a particular meaning. Like the universe itself, the maps of Bad Rats are in constant flux, and they will be what they are, regardless of whatever order I try to impose upon them.

I think, for the next ten hours, I'm going to try and play this game empirically, and experiment with the physics without trying to "solve" it. There must be some method to the madness, and perhaps, if I approach it with a spirit of open inquiry, I can find out what that method is.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Bad Rats - 6/20 hours

Bad Rats uses a password system to allow you to continue a failed map. Passwords. In this day and age. Were I in the mood to be condescending, I would say that it's a quaint throwback to a simpler time, but actually, Bad Rats' password system aptly demonstrates why people don't use passwords anymore. I have a list of 21 passwords, maybe five of which I've actually used. It's weird, because the game also has a save function. But the save function is not perfect. For some reason, Bad Rats puts you on a time limit that carries over from level to level, and when you save, you save your time limit as well. So, the passwords are not entirely redundant (and sometimes necessary), but generally more of a pain than they're worth.

It really shouldn't come as a surprise, though. The archaic and baffling password system is the least of Bad Rats' problems. Out of curiosity, I decided to keep repeating a particular level's "original solution" until it succeeded. It took 11 tries.

How is anyone supposed to play a game like that? Where even the recommended default solution only has a 9% chance of success. Even if you do succeed, can you really be said to be "playing the game?"  It's more like clicking randomly and hoping the engine will do the work. Unfortunately, the engine does not work very well.

The main advantage of such a perverse game construction is that it should eat up time like nobody's business. Twenty hours should be no problem.

Bad Rats - 2/20 hours

Bad Rats combines a sloppy physics simulation with unsettling animal cruelty to create a gaming experience that is, at best, eye-rollingly stupid. The core of the game is that you have a variety of rats, each with their own special ability, and you arrange them around a level in such a way that you can knock a ball around a series of obstructions and into some deadly object, in order to kill a cat.

I get that they're aiming for an over-the-top cartoon violence sort of thing, in the vein of Tom and Jerry or Itchy and Scratchy, but Bad Rats appears to have no understanding of what makes that sort of comedy work. Tom and Jerry is an inversion of the classic predator and prey hierarchy, where the ostensibly vulnerable mouse survives an attack by a physically superior cat through the use of cleverness and trickery. And while Itchy and Scratchy takes that to sociopathic extremes by removing all pretense of a self-defense motive from Itchy, it still follows the same basic beats of the genre it's parodying - Scratchy is physically larger, and is usually drawn into Itchy's elaborate death traps by the exploitation of a "vice" (though, usually, Scratchy's vice is that he trusted Itchy).

Bad Rats has none of that. The deathtraps play more like a merciless execution. The cat stands at the end of the level, completely helpless. It is more or less the same size as the rats, and its idle animation involves it making various nervous gestures, as if it were aware of its inevitable fate. It just comes across as disgustingly cruel. There's no sense of an inverted power relationship, not even a winking nod that acknowledges the fact that the rats have the real power. The cat is purely a victim, and the rats hate it for no apparent reason (it can't be survival - one of your rats is a suicide bomber, complete with turban and beard, because it's not enough for the game to be awful, it also has to include some casual racism).

Yet, even if it is a black hole of humor, it might be possible to ignore that were the basic gameplay compelling enough. And on paper, the idea behind the game seems solid - solve physics puzzles with a variety of objects that each has its own characteristic behavior. Unfortunately, the physics simulation barely works. It is extremely inconsistent. I've completed levels where my setup was just fine, but I had to run the simulation several times before the ball would get to where it's supposed to go. It would behave differently in different runs, making the line between correct and incorrect solutions very fine indeed.

And that's not just me imagining things. After you beat a level, you have the option of viewing the default solution - what the developers intended to be the standard way of doing things - and on multiple occasions, I've seen the default solution fail. On one level, it failed consistently. No matter how many times I ran the sim, the ball would always get stuck (but not necessarily in the exact same place, so I'm sure that it must have succeeded at least once, in order to get put in the game that way).

For the life of me, I can't even imagine how that's possible. Are they including a random factor in their simulation model? Is it based on some quirk of my hardware, like caches or something making certain calculations faster or slower on different runthroughs and thus introducing rounding errors? I don't believe it's intentional (because Bad Rats is a freaking puzzle game, and randomness is antithetical to the genre's goals), but if it's an accident, that seems like a huge oversight.

Not that I think a whole ton of care has gone into this game. The soundtrack is awful, and the interface for placing items is a nightmare to navigate unless you stick to the most basic placement possible. In particular, setting up ramps with the board always takes more work than it should, because if you adjust its angle in a way that makes it intersect with another object, it automatically cancels and resets, which is a total pain, because when you need to change the angle, any new intersections could be solved quickly with a small translation. Yet, because of this ass-backwards interface, I wind up having to partially rotate the board, shift it slight, rotate it a little more, shift it again, and so on until it is in exactly the right place.

I think, though, that I've seen the worst the game has to offer. If I can tolerate it now, it shouldn't be a huge problem to tolerate it for the next 18. Provided, of course, that it has no more nasty surprises in store.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Bad Rats - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Bad Rats is a physics puzzle game where rats finally get their bloody revenge on their new prisoners: The cats. 
Come up with creative solutions for each puzzle using physics, functional objects, and your specially trained Rats. Try different ways of solving each puzzle to finish faster or earn higher scores. Revel in your success as the cat meets a violent demise in any number of humorous ways at the hands of Bad Rats. 

Previous Play Time

0 hours

Prior Experience

I don't know anything about Bad Rats, but I have heard that it is a common gag gift. Also, Madcat gave me special dispensation not to play it for the full 20 hours, which does not fill me with a great deal of confidence.


It's a puzzle game, so how bad could it be? On the other hand, every time I've doubted the conventional wisdom, it's burned me greatly. I'm going to try and go the whole way, however, because I don't want a gap in my nice, neat list. Hopefully, it will be slow-paced enough that I can play it without having to devote too much attention to it. Those are always the easiest "bad" games to play.

I'm actually really looking forward to finishing this game, because it's the last perverse one on my list. All the others appear to have at least some interesting qualities to make them worth playing. It's all uphill from here!

Bastion - 20/20 hours

There's nothing quite so humbling as checking an online leaderboard. I've played this game for 20 hours, beat it twice, and my score attack rank was 17,445th. It kind of undercuts one's sense of accomplishment to see that something you struggled to achieve has literally been done more times than you can imagine. It's not that big a deal. It is simply part of the price of living in the modern world - you can never escape the truth of your own smallness.

Of course, that's just an idle thought. I never really expected to be one of the best of the best at Bastion. I could barely manage having five of the ten shrines active (the story levels were pretty easy, but the "who knows where" levels stretched me to my limit - it is difficult to overstate the frustration of dying after the Stranger's letter z wave). Maybe with another 20 hours of practice, but, while Bastion is an undeniably beautiful game, it probably does not have enough meat for it to become an obsession.

So, while I am not going to go for the 10 idol challenge, I don't feel like I'm leaving Bastion with unfinished business. It gave me a simple, yet enjoyable story and simple, yet enjoyable gameplay that kept me thoroughly engaged for the whole 20 hours. I can't really ask for more than that.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Bastion 15/20 hours

New game+ is almost exactly like the regular story mode, but you get to keep all your stuff. Not unexpected, of course, but it does somewhat undermine the structure of the game. Now that I've bought all the weapon upgrades and miscellaneous items, I don't really have anything to strive for (aside from some perfunctory xp grinding to get up to level 10).

That said, Bastion still has a trick up its sleeve - the idols. The idols are a nifty idea, and probably the most innovative part of the game. If, like me, you are in danger of becoming jaded by the easy difficulty of the default game, you can go into the Shrine and activate one or more of the ten divine idols. Each one has a different effect on gameplay, from making enemies reflect attacks to removing random potion drops.

I like this a lot more than just a flat difficulty slider. Adjusting to new idols requires me to rethink my tactics and habits in a way that just straight up beefier enemies would not, and if I find a particular aspect of the game too tricky, I can just deactivate that one idol without completely going back to easy mode. Plus, the idols give you more xp and gems to compensate, and even though I don't need them, it's a nice bonus. I think this should probably be standard for how games do adjustable difficulty.

Bastion may be a simple game, but it is continually surprising me with its ability to get the basic action-rpg formula right.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Bastion - 11/20 hours

Finished story mode. The ending didn't make a damned bit of sense (the Bastion's many functions  remind me of Professor Farnsworth's glow in the dark nose machine), but the game's amazing atmosphere and mood almost manage to pull it off. Ultimately, though, Bastion's insistence on telling everything through the voice of the narrator might have undermined the story a bit. I did not know, for example, that the Kid and Zia were particularly close, and thus did not feel the intended emotional punch of the final choice.

However, that's really a minor quibble. I stayed up until 3pm playing this game (my usual bedtime is 1 o'clock) because it's incredibly fun and has charm to spare. Repeating the whole thing in new game+ mode is going to be no hardship at all (well, except perhaps for repeating the shield proving ground - that was a pain). In fact, I'm looking forward to it.

My only actual complaint about Bastion is with the save system. So, autosave means that if you die in or quit a level, nothing you did counts. Fair enough. However, the autosave only triggers when you enter a new area, which means that if you mess around in Bastion and then quit the game without first entering a new area, all the stuff you just did (such as customizing weapons, changing your liquors, or buying stuff from the shop) is undone. It's a minor oversight, and perhaps there's some other way to trigger the autosave that I'm not aware of, but it contributed to me staying awake so late (you know, because I'd upgrade a weapon, and then to keep it, I'd go into the dream level, and while in the dream level, I figured I might as well beat it, and in the process of beating it, I'd grind enough gems to get another weapon upgrade . . .)

It's an annoying feature, but not so much that it makes me want to stop playing. The obvious solution seems to be to just never quit . . .

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Bastion - 6/20 hours

Six hours in and I've reached the point in the story where you collect all the doodads and then the villain swoops in out of nowhere and wrecks your shit so that you have to go through the whole doodad collecting process all over again. I'd be angry, but it's something I saw coming a mile away. This is an rpg. Of course collecting stuff is not going to be the end of it. The reversal at the end of act 1 is a staple of the genre. The first time I recall experiencing it is in Final Fantasy II (IV), but I'm certain that even by then it was a hoary cliche.

Which is Bastion's main weakness. The writing is as by-the-number and perfunctory as it's possible to imagine. It turned out that, come the act break, you were betrayed by someone you thought was an ally, but who was so thinly sketched as a character that you had no particular reason to feel that way. The Calamity is a big mystery, but undoubtedly it was caused by some random omnicidal maniac with an inexplicable grudge against human civilization.

Yet Bastion's writing is not exactly what I'd call a problem. The details of presentation matter, and the colorful, vibrant levels, excellent soundtrack, and top-notch voice work go a long way towards making it something special. And even though the novelty of the narration has worn off, the game's insistence on presenting the story entirely in the third person gives it an interesting and unique voice.

The gameplay remains solid. I wore out my finger trying to finish the shield Proving Ground, but that is just a testament to how engaging the mechanics are. There's nothing particularly revelatory about them, but by the same token, they fail to screw anything up. Each weapon has its unique rhythm and tactics, and (with the possible exception of the rifle and the pistols) they are different enough that different equipment loadouts each have their own unique feel (you also get a unique narration for each weapon pair, which is super cool).

All-in-all, I'd say that Bastion is like gaming comfort food. Virtually everything about it is familiar and comfortable, and yet it has just enough of its own character that it doesn't come across as bland. If I had the time for it (and didn't have to write these blog posts), I could probably do the whole 20 hours in a single sitting.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Bastion - 2/20 hours

Two hours in and I feel like I don't have enough to say to justify a full post. That is not, however, a criticism. Rather, it is a reflection of the fact that I've played Bastion for two hours, and yet it feels as if barely any time has passed. That's usually the mark of a game that has serious legs.

It also doesn't help that, so far, Bastion appears to have just the barest whisp of a plot. Some time ago, something bad happened ("The Calamity") and now the various floating sky places are falling apart and infested by monsters. My character ("The Kid") is going around collecting doodads and rounding up survivors to rebuild the one good place left (Bastion). You know, pretty boilerplate rpg stuff (you may recognize it as virtually the exact same plot as the game Soul Blazer).

Still, execution counts for a lot, and Bastion features an incredible storytelling invention in the form of its narrator. The closest thing that springs to mind is the xbox version of The Bard's Tale, but I'm straining my brain to remember whether that narrator was dynamic or just an important part of the story. Still, even if Bastion's narration is not the first of its kind, it's still very good. Doing something in the game, and then hearing it described in third person by this deep, smooth, and serious voice is an absolute delight, especially when it's clear that what you're hearing is not part of the "real" story and instead triggered by some optional or random action (when I wandered around smashing boxes, the narrator said, "and the Kid just raged for a bit," and it made me grin like a maniac.)

I still haven't figured out how the narration works, or what sort of things trigger it, but I'm really looking forward to finding out.

(Oh yeah, the actual gameplay is pretty good too - solid action rpg combat with a good diversity in weapon choices and special abilities).

Bastion - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Bastion is an action role-playing experience that redefines storytelling in games, with a reactive narrator who marks your every move. Explore more than 40 lush hand-painted environments as you discover the secrets of the Calamity, a surreal catastrophe that shattered the world to pieces. Wield a huge arsenal of upgradeable weapons and battle savage beasts adapted to their new habitat. Finish the main story to unlock the New Game Plus mode and continue your journey! 

 Prior Play Time

0 hours

Previous Experience

None. However, action rpgs are one of my favorite genres, so I'll probably get the hang of it pretty quick.


I'll admit, they're pretty high. I know that's probably an unlucky thing to say, but I've nonetheless got a good feeling about this game. While I try not to look at a game's reviews before I play it, I couldn't help but notice that it's got an 86 metascore. Plus, it was given to me by my good friend Daniel, who does not generally have sadistic tendencies, and it was spoken of highly on my rpg.net thread.

However, aside from high hopes, I can't really say I have any specific expectations at all. "Redefining storytelling in games" means virtually nothing to me, and what few features I can suss out from the store description don't go particularly far in distinguishing it from other action rpgs I may have played. So, I kind of feel like I'm in for a generic action rpg with an interesting story.

And you know what, I'm cool with that.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Takedown: Red Sabre - 20/20 hours

I'm finally done!

I was right about finishing mission 3, but it was not a satisfying win. Most of the time, I was able to get one or two of the three objectives, but the third one was at the top of a staircase, guarded by an enemy who was able to kill me every single time. Then, one time, it didn't spawn. So, I was able to climb up there, shut down the satellite dish, and then make my way out. And then I died at the helipad. So I repeated the level a whole bunch more times until it happened again.

I suppose it's just the fickle finger of fate. "Of that day and hour no one knows. . ." etc. Perhaps it's realistic, but it's kind of a dubious design for a video game.

It weird how much I failed to get into this game. Usually, even if a game is notoriously bad, I'll get into it after a couple of hours. There's a kind of trance or focus that comes over me and I start to buy into the game's methods and goals. That didn't happen this time. I think it's because so much of my "progress" was dependent on chance. I never really felt a connection between my actions and the fate of my character. The margin of error was too thin. When I died, I never felt like I could have avoided it through superior play.

Call it sour grapes, if you will, but damn if my grapes are not super sour. Perhaps I'm blaming the game for my bad mood. I was in a bad mood while playing this game, yet correlation is not causation, and I can't say for sure that Takedown: Red Sabre is necessarily a bad game.

It was trying to create an experience, a world where danger lurks around every corner, and only great care and precise tactics can keep you alive. I can see the value in that. Attaining mastery. Overcoming impossible odds. Enduring hardship and failure. That is what being "hardcore" is all about.

I'm just not sure how enchanted I am with hardcore for the sake of hardcore. So, whatever charms Takedown: Red Sabre might have, they are lost on me.

Oh well, maybe next time.

Takedown: Red Sabre - 15/20 hours

It's hard to explain what playing this game is really like. That's why, back at hour 10, I made this video:

It's a pretty typical sample of my playing experience. Creep. Die. Repeat. I wound up beating the level after another 2 and a half hours. There was nothing particularly special about my last run. In the end, it was a matter of luck - the enemies spawned in a pattern that allowed me to see enough of them early enough that I only died three times rather than four.

I'm finding that the biggest part of playing Takedown: Red Sabre is managing my emotions. I have to be aware of and sensitive to the game's tension (because, while being careful won't keep you alive, being careless will kill you), but not get so into it that the frustration is overwhelming. And amidst all this, I also have to carefully manage my attention so that the tedium of repetition does not wear me down and cause me to quit.

You never quite realize how long five hours is until you have to relive the same three minutes a hundred times in a row.

Only a hundred more deaths to go. I'd lay the odds of me beating the third mission at around 50/50. Mission 4 is never going to happen.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Takedown: Red Sabre - 10/20 hours

I will say this for Takedown: Red Sabre its sales pitch was not lying when it said it did not play like a typical shooter. I don't know how to put it, exactly, but it feels like it goes out of its way to avoid artifacts that would make it feel like a game. The HUD is minimal, showing only your currently equipped weapon and how much ammo remained (though if they wanted to go really hardcore with that, they could remove even that, and only show you how many clips you have - it's not like real guns come with a digital ammo display). You also, technically, get a health meter, but as far as I can tell, it is green when you have not yet been shot, red when you have been shot at least once, and in either event completely useless, because being injured doesn't impair you and being uninjured is absolutely no guarantee that you won't die from a single enemy gunshot.

One thing that is notably absent is a crosshair for when you are not looking down your weapon's scope. While watching a video online (I was looking for something to point me towards the biolab's mission objectives, because of course it doesn't have objective markers) I heard it claimed this was because the game was supposed to discourage shooting from the hip.

And that's when I realized me and Takedown simply have irreconcilable differences. What I want out of a shooter is a fundamentally game-like experience. I want to be an action hero. I want to move quickly from enemy to enemy and make progress through the level with checkpoints for when I screw up. I want to know where I'm going and what I'm supposed to do (seriously, the HQ mission tells you to "destroy all the external hard drives" but does not tell you how many there are or where to find them).

Takedown: Red Sabre is not like that at all. It is less a game and more a manifesto. "You will go slowly" it says. "You will die unpredictably from enemy fire," it says. "Areas that appear safe will not be safe," it says (and then goes on to mutter under its breath, "but deadly threats will not necessarily be visible from cover, even if you wait a long time, so progress will be impossible without occasionally exposing yourself to a headshot from halfway across the map"). With Takedown you will not be getting a "watered down" shooter experience.

And while I've always been a bit suspicious of the phrase "watered down" (it always seems to be used by people trying to make a virtue of their ability to endure pain and inconvenience), I can appreciate Takedown's purity. Or, at least, I could if it would at least make some concessions to the fact that I am a person trying to play a game. I'm not talking much. Statistics tracking would be a godsend. Ninety-nine percent of the time (no hyperbole, either, I've been playing for 10 hours, and have only finished one mission - the biolab), I am going to die without completing the mission, so it would be nice if I could establish performance benchmarks and track "high scores." Also nice would be the ability to move the camera after I die, so I can see what killed me and not wander into the same damned trap time and again (which, you'd think would not be a problem, except that sometimes you're ambushed in a place you absolutely have to pass through, and killed in less time than it takes to scan the environment and find the enemy whose killing you). Health expressed in percentage terms. Being able to switch between which squadmate you control, so as to use the best weapon for any particular situation.

However, I have a feeling that Takedown is simply not a well polished game. There are things, mostly minor inconveniences, that have no conceivable reason for being the way they are (except, perhaps, lack of time, money, and quality control). For example, while in a mission, you cannot check to see how the controls are mapped. You have to exit the mission and go to the options screen off the main menu to do that. (This is especially glaring during the tutorial, when the game instructs you to do stuff while giving no hint whatsoever about how to do it). Similarly, being able to customize your squad's equipment would be an important aid in mission planning.

So far, Takedown: Red Sabre is really making me appreciate Dark Souls. While I was playing it, it frustrated me to no end, and often made me feel like I was being punished for failure, yet I now realize, that while it was not ideal, it actually did quite a bit to gently nudge me in the direction of progress and keep up my interest during those sagging "now you die 50 times in a row without advancing the story" sections. It's a shame that I could only realize how much Dark Souls actually did for me by playing a game that doesn't bother.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Takedown: Red Sabre - 6/20 hours

Though it's not a label I would necessarily apply to myself, it's hard to deny that I am, in fact, a "hardcore gamer." After all, I once installed a Skyrim mod to enable me to die of frostbite. Yet, Takedown: Red Sabre proves the inadequacy of such categories. When it comes to first person shooters, I'm not at all "hardcore." I'm not even "softcore." I'm more "marshmallow core."

What I like is to play as Salvador in Borderlands 2, and be able to just hold down the trigger buttons while vaguely pointing towards the enemy until everything around me is dead. And it is a testament to my lack of skill at this particular genre that I sometimes die as Salvador. So, as you might imagine, Takedown: Red Sabre is like a nightmare to me.

The fault probably lies with me. This game is almost undoubtedly meant for SWAT nerds - people who are deep into the minutiae of small unit tactics, and who can appreciate the nuance of all the various ways in which you get unceremoniously shot in the head.

On the other hand, I have my doubts about how realistic a simulation this game really is. Of all the various SWAT related news stories I've heard over the years, I can't recall any particular instance where the heavily armed and armored professionals were ever routed by terrorists, criminals, or private security. Usually, the forces of order have these sorts of situations well in hand.

Of course, part of the problem might be that Red Sabre is not, in fact, a modern military or police force, and thus has ramshackle armor, substandard weapons, and useless intelligence. That would seem to match my experiences of the game, where even choosing the "heavy armor" loadout does nothing to prevent me from dying in one hit and where I lack even basic intel (such as floorplans for the buildings I'm infiltrating or estimates about the number of foes I'm likely to face). It seems a little unfair to me to expect me to deal with all sorts of disadvantages in the name of "realism" and then deny me resources real special forces are able to call upon.

Yet, maybe the problem is actually that I do have all the advantages of a SWAT team, and I just don't have the knowledge and training to make use of those advantages. That seems plausible, and in a way, it doesn't even bother me that much, except this game does nothing to teach you the skills necessary to survive. It just throws you into the deep end and expects you to thrive.

That's something I can't abide in a sim. "Realistic" games can be frustrating, but there is something rewarding about learning about an aspect of the world you wouldn't normally be able to experience. Yet if that realism makes the game too inaccessible, it is difficult to learn anything from it.

For me, Takedown: Red Sabre falls on the wrong side of the line. I don't feel like I'm starting to think like a hardened mercenary. I feel like I'm pointlessly dying again and again, like a damned soul being forced to relive the last day of his iniquitous life as part of the punishments of hell.

I think I'll have to learn to take myself less seriously.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Takedown: Red Sabre - 2/20 hours

As predicted, Takedown: Red Sabre is chewing me up and spitting me out. I'm finding it less a "thinking person's shooter" and more of a "masochist with lightning reflexes' shooter." There doesn't seem to be a great connection between my actions and decisions and the outcome of my mission. Generally, taking it slow seems to have some benefit, except when  the enemy one-shots me from across the room, or when my crosshairs are right on its torso, but my bullets seem to have no effect. And carefully searching room-by-room is completely unpredictable in its efficacy. Sometimes, the enemy kills me quicker than my natural reaction time (seriously, makers of Takedown: Red Sabre - there is a measurable delay between when a human being sees something and when they are able to react to it - if your enemies can kill me in less than 250 milliseconds, there is basically no point in my playing the game).

Other times, the enemies will miss me with their weapons, or hit and fail to kill me, so I'm guessing that the intent is to model the unpredictable deadliness of a real gun fight. Anyone could be killed at any time, and it's not always fair. I suppose I get it. Yet, that is one of the many reasons I am not an amoral mercenary in real life.

Speaking of which, I'm not sure who this "Red Sabre" organization is, but I'm pretty sure that, were this an action movie, they'd be the villains. The first mission I played told me that I had to stop some terrorists because "exposure of Neogen's bioweapons research would harm its image." Um . . . good?

So, there is one advantage to being terrible at this game - by leading so many of Red Sabre's elite force of enforcers-for-hire to their untimely deaths, you could say that I, the player, am actually the biggest hero of all.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Takedown: Red Sabre - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)
TAKEDOWN is a thinking-person’s shooter; brutal, hardcore and deadly - like the real thing. Not for the faint hearted, Takedown requires you to bring your 'A' game - FPS fans looking for an ultra hardcore experience only need apply! 

The player that takes things slow, aims carefully, and plans their moves right will overcome the player who runs in with guns blazing. Close-quarters battle brings the fight inside, as you would see SWAT teams or SOF units taking down small numbers of dangerous adversaries. Non-linear environments allow for multiple routes and tactics and add replayability. 

In recent years, shooters have become homogenized. There used to be a wide range of different games to choose, from run-and-gun action titles to slow-paced tactical shooters focusing on strategy and tactics, but now most shooters follow the same model of big set pieces, regenerating health, linear levels, and “cinematic experiences.” The realistic tactical shooters with in-depth planning have almost entirely disappeared in recent years. 

This game focuses on realistic weapons modeling, squad based play, in a close-quarters battle setting. To succeed in this game you need to take things slow, study your environment, and execute flawlessly. If you get shot, there are consequences. You won’t be hiding behind a wall waiting for your health to regenerate. If a team member goes down, you will have to assess the situation and reallocate team members if necessary to complete the mission. Don’t expect all of the tools and plans to be forced fed to you – it is up to the player to ensure their team is equipped and ready for the tasks at hand. With features such as realistic bullet penetration, accuracy, and recoil, choosing the proper weapons, ammunition, armor, and gear for the mission is up to you, so choose carefully. 

Gameplay modes include single player, co-op, and competitive multiplayer. If you are a fan of old school shooters where thinking meant more than running and gunning or perks, or if you are just looking for something different in your shooter games experience, this is the game for you.

Prior Play Time
0 hours

Previous Experience
None, my friend Travis bought this game specifically to torment me. I'm not sure what I did to earn his ire, but I happened (despite my resolution to come into these challenge games "fresh") to look down at the reviews, and I'm sure this will be penance for whatever misdeeds I may have performed.

Low. Rock bottom, in fact. The game lost me the second it said "thinking person's shooter," I knew I was in for a rough ride. If I may flatter myself for a bit - I like to think of myself as a thinking person. I've been know to deliver the occasional bon mot, and, in rare instances, even make a trenchant observation or two. However, shooters, for me, are where this all breaks down. I like the big set pieces and "cinematic experiences" Takedown: Red Sabre's store page so derides. And I love running in with guns blazing. Consequently, I am pretty bad at even a normal shooter. This one is going to kill me so many times.

I'm going to have to try and laugh at it. Otherwise, I might cry.

Anno 2070 - 20/20 hours

I finished the second mission of chapter 3. The high point was capturing Strindberg, who, because he got beat by F.A.T.H.E.R.'s forces, for some reason decided to turn on the alliance and start attacking our ships. He wound up causing an oil spill around my secondary island in the process. What an incompetent dick! How did he wind up getting a second chance in the Global Trust? (I delivered him to Rufus Thorne, which should be the end of him, but somehow, I'm guessing he'll get an inexplicable third chance to screw things up).

That was just a sidequest though. The main mission had me build up the infrastructure to build high-end Global Trust warships. It went a whole lot smoother now that I had a robust infrastructure giving me basically unlimited tools and building materials, but I'm pretty sure I screwed myself for the last couple of mission, because I am virtually out of space to expand, so if missions three and four have any more serious teching up to do, I'm done for.

However, I think I'm going to leave that for another time. Anno 2070 is a game of growth and order, of building miniature electronic gardens and watching them flower over time. Twenty hours doesn't do it justice, but neither would 50, or 100. It's a weird thing I'm discovering on this journey of mine - a lot of my games are infinite time sinks. I started this project with the notion that I could "give my games their due," put in a solid 20 hours and rest secure in the knowledge that I hadn't wasted my money by buying them. Now, I think that may not be the biggest problem with my collection.

It turns out, I'm probably wasting the games. I have Recettear and Anno 2070 and Skyrim, so why exactly do I need a fourth game (obvious answer - Civilization)? Each one could be a hobby, an obsession, or a lifestyle. Is my time really so valuable that I can afford to play favorites among them, sprinkling my attention whimsically between games, never really getting the full experience of any of them, just so I can say that I own them? Am I really so bored? So jaded?

I don't think so, but I also couldn't say what I hoped to accomplish by buying them. Call it a species of lust, I guess. The things looked so appealing, and they were so easily attainable, that I had to go after them, but I never really meant for that to become a commitment.

Which is to say that, now, coming off the high of succeeding at Anno 2070's campaign mode, I fully intend to come back and visit it again, but I have more than 50 games yet to go, so it's actually quite like that another will turn my head (obvious answer - Civilization), and for all it's undeniable virtues, it is unlikely to be the one that tames my wandering heart.

It's bittersweet, but I must say "goodbye and good luck" to Anno 2070. I will always remember your excessively fiddly supply chain mechanics with fondness.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Anno 2070 - 15/20 hours

I don't think I'm going to finish campaign mode by hour 20. It's been five hours since my last post, and I am still not much closer to finishing the very same mission I was attempting at the end of hour 10. A large part of this is, of course, because I took a detour and played a random "easy" map for a couple of hours.

The economic crash that occurred last time I played campaign mode was simply too frustrating to endure. I needed to learn how to manage an economy from the ground up, without having to worry about arbitrary campaign goals. So, I did just that.

Turns out my problem was almost certainly a lack of patience. Or rather, a lack of understanding that patience is necessary. My first time through, I charged through the scenario like a bull (at least, as much as that's possible in a casually paced strategy game). As soon as an upgrade was available, I built it, and as a result, my high-level citizens and factories were eating up all of my basic resources, leading to chronic shortages. Those shortages made my people unhappy, and as a consequence, my economy repeatedly crashed.

So, you know, I had to stop doing that. I had to, instead, build a broad enough base so that when the expansion came, it would result in a more stable structure. Even if that meant passing up the opportunity to advance the quest as quickly as possible.

With that knowledge in hand, I restarted the campaign mode . . . and almost screwed myself, because it turns out that the mission requires you to reduce the pollution on your starting island (which, if you recall, was nuked by F.A.T.H.E.R.), a task that is mathematically impossible if you have to offset a robust industrial economy in addition to the island's natural starting deficit. Luckily, I noticed this while I was only a few points over the line, and thus was able to complete the scenario goal by bulldozing a few of my high-tech factories and then rebuilding them when the quest triggered.

I'm now optimistic about completing the mission, and I suspect that future missions in Chapter 4 might be a little easier (you keep the same island for every mission in a chapter, and thus I feel pretty confident that there are no more onerous building-style tasks than getting 1200 level 3 residents - the last three mission are likely to be purely military).

That said, I have not yet reached the point where Anno 2070's brand of city management is intuitive to me. The latest problem I've been having is a shortage of vegetables to make high-end health food, which is weird because I'd have thought the bottleneck would be rice, which I have to import from a heavily irradiated island. Why my stocks of vegetables should be empty, while my warehouse practically overflows with rice is a complete mystery.

Still, this sort of challenge is why I'm really enjoying Anno 2070. There's just something compellingly immersive (and charmingly nerdy) about having to worry about sources of raw materials to supply factories to achieve your political and economic goals. And it gives a real sense of accomplishment when you are able to sort out your issues and get things working smoothly.

Here's hoping there are no more nasty surprises in store for the last three missions of the campaign.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Anno 2070 - 10/20 hours

I'm still playing through the campaign, and I'm guessing I'm about halfway through the first mission of chapter 3, and it's kind of a rough one. F.A.T.H.E.R., the AI that is, apparently, the "highest authority" in S.A.A.T continues to be insane. I've tracked it down to its island refuge where it, for some reason, decided to nuke a bunch of other islands (destroying a few buildings, but leaving the trees unharmed). To stop the rogue AI, I have to build up my population until the third tier of workers.

It's a challenge that's stretching my novice city management skills to their limit. Basically, there is a complex interplay of resources, energy, credits, and building space that needs to be navigated to insure that my people have all the luxuries necessary to support a highly educated population. I keep running into shortages that, when I patch them, lead to shortages in other areas, which, upon correcting, lead to new shortages, and so on and so forth. I've got about 400 of the necessary 1200 eco engineers, but after building my second city center and a whole bunch of new houses, my economy suddenly collapsed, and I'm starting to worry that I may not be able to get it to recover.

Still, I guess that's the challenge of the game. If it were easy, it wouldn't be worth doing. (Or maybe it would, there is something oddly relaxing about playing a building game where everything goes right).

It's a little stressful, though, so I'm thinking of putting the campaign on hiatus and starting an open-ended game, so that I can explore the tech tree and resource chains in a situation with a little less pressure. I mean, this is towards the end of the campaign mode, so it may be that I'm too much of a newb to tackle it.

I'm liking the game, though. Exploring the maps, finding resources, and advancing your sci-fi technology are all fun and satisfying. More than enough to keep me going for the last 10 hours.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Anno 2070 - 6/20 hours

I've been through two of the chapter 2 missions, and my impression of this game is growing more and more favorable. You can build bases underwater! I made the same damned mistake as when I first tried to settle an island (you don't start a base with the conventional build buttons, even if it's underwater), but it was nonetheless pretty cool.

I had my problems, though. A scripted event in the first campaign mission turned my fish into rotten fish and killed off my whole town. I had to start the mission over. I think the purpose of this was to teach me to use and rely on trade routes, but none of the other factions sold fish, and the game never told me that my underwater base's functional food could substitute in a pinch. Still, you live you learn.

I actually really like Anno 2070's production system - you harvest raw materials to make other materials, which can make other materials, which can go into special buildings and units. However, I'm definitely going to have a long way to go before I master the economy. Matching supply to demand is a major pain (the classic weakness of all centrally planned economic systems), and my credit income fluctuated unpredictably. While it seemed to generally grow alongside my population, it would then spike up and down for no discernible reason. What I think is going on is that my citizens happiness varies based on my current stockpiles of luxury goods, and that affects tax income, but I was never actually able to boost luxury production high enough to see my income stabilize. In fact, trying to do so wound up raising my expenses unacceptably.

It was only in retrospect that I realized I was probably going about it the wrong way. In Anno 2070, you are limited in where you can build your various types of facilities. Residential housing has to be within a certain distance of a city center. My income peaked at around the time I filled up all the available space around mine. But, instead of trying to build more luxuries, what I should have done is just build a second city center and increased my population of basic workers (advanced workers pay more taxes, but need more luxuries). Call it a failure of imagination. Because, up to this point, I'd only needed one city center, I'd gotten in the habit of thinking of them as a "one per island" building, but there's actually nothing in the rules (as far as I can tell) that says that. I'm going to chalk that up to an understandable rookie mistake.

I have a feeling, though, that I may also have underestimated the corporate faction. I dismissed them as a bunch of short-sighted goons, but I'm pretty sure they generate more income per citizen (actually I just checked the wiki, and it turns out their advantage is lower maintenance costs - which still would have helped my balance significantly). 

I also got my first taste of combat in the second Chapter 2 mission (an AI, called F.A.T.H.E.R. gets infected by a computer virus, goes rogue, and takes over C.O.R.E - those scientist guys sure like their clever acronyms, though I couldn't tell you what either means). I'm pleased that it seems pretty basic, and thus won't necessarily require a great deal of sophisticated RTS tactics on my part, but actually building a warship required a huge amount of infrastructure and credits, so I'm a little worried that if I do poorly in battle, I may screw myself beyond my ability to recover.

Overall, I am hugely optimistic about this game. I just can't wait until I stop stumbling around blindly and actually get good (that'll probably take more than 20 hours, though - this game looks super deep).

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Anno 2070 - 2/20 hours

I've now finished the first chapter of the campaign, and so far it has convinced me that I will probably really like this game . . . and also that I may moderately dislike campaign mode.

It's not awful or anything, it's just that so far, I've only seen one map, and the quests have been pretty bland. Various people asking me to move my flagship to a particular location or to build X number of buildings. Yet there are hints of the game's depth to be seen - I've had to build faction specific buildings and set up short supply chains. That small taste has whetted my appetite to see what the game can do when everything is unlocked.

I think I'm going to stick with the campaign for now, though. It looks like playing an open-ended game is going to require that I absorb a lot of new concepts, and I'd prefer to have them spoon-fed to me one at a time. Not that the campaign works great as a tutorial (the first time I played, back in June, I had to look up on the internet how to build a warehouse, because the game didn't tell me that it was an exception to the normal construction menu). Still, it narrows down my inevitable searches by taking away the whole "where do I even begin" problem.

The plot of the campaign is bare bones. I'm some kind of corporate stooge who starts out working for the world's most incompetent corporate executive, Thor Strindberg. Not only does Strindberg insist on using oil and coal power, despite the premise of the game being out of control climate change forcing humanity to take to the seas (though, to be fair, this appears to be a wider policy of the corporate faction), but he can't even do "pragmatic in the short term, careless about externalities" right. He deliberately ignores his chief engineer's warnings about overloading a hydroelectric dam, insists on running a new part without proper testing, and then tries to pin the blame on the engineer when it fails. And when I do a halfway decent job cleaning up the mess, he tries to throw me under the bus too. When that fails to appease Rufus Thorne, the CEO, he swears revenge as if, somehow, I had anything at all to do with his downfall.

I don't get this character. Lying would be sleazy, yet understandable, but he must know that neither I nor the engineer did anything but follow his orders, so continuing to insist on his innocence after the CEO has stopped listening borders on the delusional.

The third and fourth missions of the campaign have me meeting up with a couple of new factions. In the third, a tanker ship collides with an oil platform, and I have to call upon the help of the Eden Initiative to clean it up. These guys seem moderately on the ball, using wind power and saving dolphins and whatnot, though you'd have to work pretty hard to be a bigger asshole than Thor Strindberg. Even Rufus Thorne looks good by comparison - he, at least, understands that a major ecological and humanitarian disaster is bad for business, even if he still inexplicably insists on sticking with the corporation's two year plan.

The fourth mission introduces me to what I can only assume is a third faction, SAAT. I can't say for sure, because I didn't get any new buildings from them, but they appear to be a scientist-type group. I had to work for their head honcho, Salman Devii, in order to find a long lost Ark. It turns out it sunk to the bottom of the sea, and though this mission has all the same boring "click on a particular area of the map" objectives of the previous missions, I still kind of liked it because it introduced submarines, and it turns out there is a whole sub-surface map to explore that I didn't even suspect existed. I'm pretty excited about the potential sci-fi city management vistas this new layer will open up.

The only thing I don't get so far is the Arks. They're obviously pretty important to the setting, but I'm not sure I understand their technological niche. They're huge, mobile general purpose logistics platforms that can submerge and travel under the waves, but it seems like a fleet of ordinary, purpose-built ships would be both cheaper and more efficient. And even if the Ark did have some sort of economic role, why would you make it submersible? What possible purpose could that serve?

It's not that big a deal, though. I get that it's real purpose is to serve as a home base/shop for my island settlements. I'm hoping that, as time goes on, I'll be able to customize it, because it's kind of a bummer to have this thing on the map that I'm not personally invested in. It seems likely - the Ark has customization slots - I'm just not yet sure how it's done.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Anno 2070 - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

2070. Our world has changed. The rising level of the ocean has harmed the coastal cities and climate change has made large stretches of land inhospitable. 
The latest in the award-winning strategy series, Anno 2070™ offers a new world full of challenges, where you will need to master resources, diplomacy, and trade in the most comprehensive economic management system in the Anno series. 

Build your society of the future, colonize islands, and create sprawling megacities with multitudes of buildings, vehicles, and resources to manage. Engineer production chains such as Robot Factories, Oil Refineries, and Diamond Mines, and trade with a variety of goods and commodities. 

Previous Play Time

2 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I thought it looked like a sci-fi Sim City, so it was kind of a no-brainer to go on my wishlist. Then, when it went on deep discount during the Steam Summer Sale, I had to go for it. Truth be told, though, I wasn't doing all that much "thinking" when I bought it. The sale was right before my birthday, so I was like, "well, it's not too bad to get myself a little present." And it wouldn't have been, if I hadn't reused that excuse to the point of absurdity. 

Prior Experience

I'd done a couple of the campaign missions, in order to gradually learn the game's mechanics. I found it pretty fun, but ultimately I stopped because I also bought like a dozen other games during the 2014 Steam Summer Sale, and I was overwhelmed with choice (historical note - this is the last game I played before starting this blog).


City building games are usually an exception to my general dislike of RTS games, because building up my base is my favorite part of the genre. However, Anno 2070 allows you to build military units in addition to the normal city-sim type stuff, so I'll admit to being a little worried that I may be in for a bumpy ride here (a big reason I tend to dislike RTS's is because I get attached to my buildings and units, and hate seeing the enemy blow them up - I'd probably be a much happier gamer overall if I didn't always bring so much emotion into the games I play). On the other hand, the campaign missions I've already played seemed pretty casual, so I'm guessing that the RTS stuff is going to be more like a spice, and that if I can master the game's base building aspects, I  should be all right. Plus, there are custom maps, so if I get to a point where advancing in the campaign requires too much combat for my tastes, I can always just start up a more peaceful map.

My hopes here are high. I like building things and seeing my creations grow. So, basically, all Anno 2070 has to do is avoid screwing that up.

Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition - 20/20 hours

In the last five hours, I defeated a Gaping Dragon and reached a new area, Blight Town. Unfortunately, I subsequently stalled out on my advancement, and was unable to get to Blight Town's bonfire. I think my main problem, aside from the game's punishing difficulty, is that my character's build is simply not very good. I chose the Wanderer class and am still using my starting scimitar (buffed up to +5). I also foolishly decided to dabble in sorcery, miracles, and pyromancy (because I was unsure which one would help me the most). I wound up wasting a bunch of stat increases on Faith and Intelligence, and as a result, I don't think I had enough dexterity, endurance, and vigor to survive in Blight Town.

My next move would be to grind for souls and gain a few more levels (I'm currently at 36) and stock up on poison-curing items before heading back into Blight Town and just plugging away until I get it done. However, I don't think I'll be continuing Dark Souls at this time.

It's not just because this game is frustrating, though if there were more checkpoints, so I didn't have to walk so far every time I died, I might be more inclined to keep it up. Rather, the reason I'm stopping is because it's a frustrating game . . . that does not run very well on my computer. I think I'll probably, one day, get the console version so I can play it with a decent framerate and start a character who is not hopelessly sabotaged by poor stat choices.

Dark Souls has really made me question what it means for a game to be "fun." It would be misleading to say that I enjoyed it, but it would be flat out false to say that I didn't enjoy it. Much of the time, I felt like the game was punishing me, and depending on my mood, that provoked in me either anger or despair. Yet, when I was "in the zone," playing it felt really good, so much so that I barely minded the back-tracking or the stacked odds. So, do I judge Dark Souls by the highs or the lows? It threw my emotions into turmoil, and there were times when I dreaded starting it up. But beating the Bell Gargoyles or the Capra Demon put a huge smile on my face.

I'm tempted to judge it by the little things - the menus and inventory system, for example, are awful. There are two layers of menus you have to go through to change your equipment, but the game will let you move while the first layer is up, and I can't count how many times I blundered into an enemy while still in the menu and thus had to take a few unnecessary hits before I realized what was going on and exited. You also pick up a huge amount of junk that I never figured out how to get rid of. And so much of the game is completely unexplained - I never learned if being hollow actually hurt me, or what was up with the Covenant I joined.

So, I might say that Dark Souls is a game that needs a lot more polish to be truly great (I'm curious how Dark Souls 2 fares in this regard - if it were Dark Souls with improved quality of life, I may well fall in love with it), but I kind of feel like maybe I'm selling it short. Dark Souls feels like a much older game than it really is - like it is a relic from a time before things like "balance" or "learning curves" or "player experience" were well understood, and game designers just threw whatever they felt like up on the screen and trusted that players would figure out a way to get past it. It feels primitive, and raw, and even though it's a newer game, I kind of want to grandfather it in, and say that its roughness is no impediment to it being a great game because it's "old school."

I think that means Dark Souls is definitely a great game. Of the games I've played so far, only Antichamber has provoked stronger emotions. In a way, I'm grateful that a game could stir my heart so forcefully, but I'm not so grateful that I'm eager to continue. I think I miss being able to relax while playing a game.